Western Warfare, as originated by the Greeks and systematized by the Romans, took various forms over the ensuing two millennia. European militaries put greater emphasis on decisive battles such as Gaugamela or Kursk. They focused on collective discipline, the importance of staying in rank, superior technology, and logistics. Civilian control of the military, open dissent, and personal freedom were also characteristic of European militaries. For over 2,500 years, those protocols contributed to a dynamic way of fighting that led to Western dominance, from Alexander the Great at Babylon to the Americans in Baghdad.
On occasion, the West was, of course, checked by non-Western forces through asymmetrical strategies—whether killing Athenian heavy infantrymen in the wilds of Aitolia during the Peloponnesian War, skirmishing with legionaries near Hadrian’s Wall, or fighting nineteenth-century colonial and frontier wars in Asia, Africa, and North America.
Non-Westerners also frequently sought parity through acquiring Western technology. Almost all the galley cannons of the Ottomans captured after the Battle of Lepanto, for example, were created based on Western designs, though they were found to be far less metallurgically sound.
A lack of unity among Western powers also helped European adversaries, especially given the splits between Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy that the Ottomans were able to manipulate to their advantage for nearly two centuries.
As political and ideological divides acerbated the old religious schisms, the Thirty Years War and the two World Wars of the twentieth century saw far more European military losses than any other during the entire history of Western battle. Loss of public support at home for distant wars, whether the British in Africa or the Americans in Vietnam, could often hamper operations. Yet, despite infamous losses at battles such as Thermopylae, Cannae, Teutoberg Forest, Carrhae, Adrianople, Yarmulke, Manzikert, Hattin, Constantinople, Islawanda, and Little Big Horn, by the nineteenth century, three-quarters of the world’s territory was under control of Western military forces. Xerxes, Hannibal, the Iberian Muslims, and the Ottomans were all able to reach Europe, but not to permanently annex much of its territory.
Within this larger framework of the Western way of war, the American variant proved somewhat unique. Americans fought in various ways as irregulars, militiamen, insurgents, and conventional soldiers in five declared wars, dozens of insurgencies, and many “police actions.” The expanse of the North American continent and the ruggedness of the frontier encouraged a singular American mastery of machines and ease with the new technology necessary to move armies and communicate through vast distances.
By the nineteenth century, most of the world was under the control of the West.
The dominant way of American fighting was one of annihilation—finding and destroying the main forces of the enemy through head-to-head infantry confrontations and superior firepower. The battles of Saratoga, New Orleans, Shiloh, Antietam, Belleau Wood, and Okinawa were all predicated on the American idea of using manpower and machines to annihilate the enemy forces in the field, accepting considerable losses in the ordeal, and ending the war as quickly as possible.
Perhaps the greatest expression of the American preference for the strategy of annihilation is found in the career of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. In the spring and summer of 1864, in a series of hammer blows at the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Spotsylvania, and Petersburg, Grant wore down Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, while almost destroying his own Army of the Potomac in the process.
American grand strategy in World War I and II, as articulated by Gen. John J. Pershing, Gen. George Marshall, and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, was predictably to land in Western Europe as soon as practicable, march huge forces eastward, and then attack and destroy the German military. In the air, heavy multi-engine bombers—“Flying Fortresses” and “Superfortresses”—sought to pulverize the German and Japanese homelands and, ultimately, rendered them useless for supplying the war effort.
But there was also a second American tradition that rejected the notion that such bloodletting was necessary to defeat the enemy. While Gen. Grant and the Army of the Potomac were ground down in Northern Virginia, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, in a series of brilliant flanking advances, descended into Georgia, and captured the Confederate rail hub at Atlanta on September 2, 1864. He suffered fewer losses than the defenders, and ensured the once dubious reelection of an unpopular Abraham Lincoln in November 1864.
Sherman, with his huge army of Midwesterners, next set out to raid the Georgia countryside to the coast at Savannah in his famous “March to the Sea,” again losing few soldiers, but inflicting $100 million in damage to Southern infrastructure and plantations. He then continued northward from Savannah through the Carolinas, and was nearing Richmond, when the war ended. Sherman argued that mobility, encirclement, flanking attacks, and focus on civilian infrastructure—not crashes against the enemy’s main forces— were far more effective in ending a war while costing far fewer lives.
In World War II, Gen. George S. Patton took up Sherman’s minority view of mobile, flanking warfare. In a brilliant two-month-long dash from Normandy to the German border, Patton encircled huge German armies, raced eastward at rates of forty miles per day, and lost fewer troops than his more slow-moving American and British counterparts. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s behind-the-lines Inchon landing in September 1950 was aimed at cutting off communist forces in the south, while heading in a rapid advance to the Chinese border.
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was the master of annihilating enemy forces.
In the first Gulf War of 1991, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf was also inspired by the examples of both Sherman and Patton. Rather than landing on the beaches of Kuwait and striking the occupying Iraqi forces head-on, Schwarzkopf and his planners devised a huge left hook, sending several motorized and armored divisions from Saudi Arabia into Iraq. They caught the surprised Iraqis from the rear, prompting their precipitous withdrawal from Kuwait.
Though the United States has found itself in five formal wars, it has far more often fought asymmetrical conflicts against insurgents, pirates, bandits, and guerrillas—whether Native Americans on the frontier, Filipino insurgents, the Viet Cong, or terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq. These nonconventional theaters have always plagued Americans, frustrated that they could not fully employ either their power or mobility against enemies who lacked our superior weapons or organizational and logistical capability.
Often, Latin American, Asian, and Middle Eastern insurgents either claimed they were fighting for liberation, or were able to kill unexpectedly large numbers of Americans—or both. The enemy’s supposed idealism and lethality often sparked anti-war protests in the United States, as we have seen from Vietnam to Iraq. Europeans themselves, stung by catastrophic losses in Vietnam, Algeria, and Africa, often criticized American deployment of such forces to Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—likewise making it difficult to form even loose Western alliances.
The unwillingness of non-Western forces to face America’s military in conventional contests of either annihilation or attrition and the checked record of the United States in fighting in unconventional theaters have given rise to another American way of war—albeit one mostly punitive in nature. If America could not use armored thrusts and rapid mobility, or was unwilling to nation-build by fighting in dense jungles or house-to-house, it sometimes simply shelled, bombed, or raided—and then left.
Classical military victory is often defined as forcing a defeated enemy to accept political objectives. But in this fourth way of punitive war, there is no certainty of defeating an enemy militarily, much less forcing it to accept political conditions by invading or occupying the country—at least during the initial hostilities.
The point of shelling Lebanon in 1984, bombing Libya in 1986, sending cruise missiles into Afghanistan and the Sudan in 1998, or bombing Iraq in 1998 was entirely retributory—simple retaliation for prior terrorist attacks against Americans by damaging infrastructure or killing those thought responsible. The military operations were conducted entirely by air. And if they were not designed to ensure the absolute end of the terrorists or their state sponsors, these bombings at least cost no American lives and thus sent a message that these punishing missions could in theory go on in whack-a-mole fashion as long as the Americans pleased.
Drone attacks allow us to hurt the enemy without getting hurt ourselves.
In the case of the 1999 bombing of the former Yugoslavia, the United States and its NATO allies assumed two propositions: (1) the Serbians had little ability to shoot down or kill American and allied planes and(2) the Allies could so badly damage the Serbian economy and infrastructure, without wide-scale collateral damage, so as to force Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and his clique to depart from power. Similarly, in Libya in 2011, America, France, and Britain suffered no losses in bombing Muammar Ghaddafi out of power. In such air campaigns, unless ground troops arrive to the scene—and they did not in Libya—the United States will have no influence over who or what replaces the tyrant, which could, in theory, be as bad or even worse than the departed ruler.
We may see a return to this fourth strategy of punitive retaliation—of “more rubble, less trouble” so popular in the 1980s and 1990s— given the present public unhappiness over the loss of blood and treasure while nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2003, George W. Bush promised to finish the problem on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than merely deploying costly cruise missiles against Bedouin tents to no purpose. But by 2011, Barack Obama was promising that drone attacks and bombing were ways of hurting the enemy without getting hurt.
The public’s desire to punish terrorists or remove genocidal strongmen, coupled with a demand that we do so without much cost and casualties, suggests that stand-off air assaults will probably again become common. Indeed, they already are. The Obama administration currently champions the Libyan model and has quintupled the number of Predator drone assassination missions over Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The rise of the punitive way of American war does not mean the final end to conventional strategies of attrition and annihilation, or even to Iraq-like counter-insurgency and nation-building. For example, if tomorrow North Korea crosses the 38th Parallel, America might conceivably land conventional forces to its rear. There are lots of hot spots in the world—Taiwan and the Middle East—where American tanks, artillery, jet fighters, and infantry could prove essential against enemy conventional forces. If we suffer another 9/11-style attack, this time originating from Iran or Syria, the United States might well invade, rather than just bomb, the perpetrators from a safe distance.
Still, as we experience American isolationism, budget cutbacks, and exhaustion with overseas commitments, the bomb-and-run Libyan blueprint is more likely to become our default strategy than the comprehensive effort we see in Afghanistan.
In short, if an enemy provokes the United States in an unconventional fashion, and if the American public is not willing to ensure a permanent end to the threat by costly invasion, occupation, and regime change, then we will likely send in cruise missiles and bombers, without worrying that they offer no permanent solution to the problem. The call will not go out to a modern-day Grant, Patton, or Petraeus, but to a group of anonymous officers at drone consoles in the United States—at least until we find that strategy ineffective and once again re-embrace the other elements of the American way of war.
Victor Davis Hanson, the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a classicist and an expert on the history of war. He is a syndicated Tribune Media Services columnist and a regular contributor to National Review Online, as well as many other national and international publications; he has written or edited twenty-one books, including the New York Times best seller Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. His most recent book, The Savior Generals, will appear in 2013. He was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Bush in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008 and has been a visiting professor at the US Naval Academy, Stanford University, Hillsdale College, and Pepperdine University. Hanson received a PhD in classics from Stanford University in 1980.